I was deeply moved by my experience of Ubuntu. It transpired in Khayelitsha (pictured), which was one of the largest and most harsh South African townships or slums when I visited.
Ubuntu, a Xhosa word from the Nguni language, is difficult to translate, although President Obama captured its essence in his speech at Mandela’s memorial service.
He said: “Ubuntu…describes [Mandela’s] greatest gift…that we achieve ourselves with others, and caring for those around us”.
This unique African perspective sees humanity as interconnected and is especially important as the country embarks on a new beginning without its great peacemaker Nelson Mandela.
Khayelitsha laid bare
My 1996 visit to Khayelitsha began as I stepped onto a dirt road in front of a shanty or shack made from mud and corrugated zinc.
An intrepid aunt, who was also a former community nurse, was my guide and translator. She was living up to her promise to show me the ‘real’ South Africa on my family visit.
As I glanced around, I realised we were the only two people on this squalid and smelly road crammed with shanties. I felt uneasy.
Sensing my tension, my aunt said: “Don’t worry, they’ll think you’re with a church group dropping off goods. You’re OK and you’re with me.”
Still, my right knuckles were white from clutching a plastic bag filled with lollies for children I hoped to meet.
Doom and gloom everywhere
As if on cue, a bunch of black kids poked their heads outside a makeshift window and beamed the whitest of smiles. Waiting in the doorway, without a door, was a very short and wiry woman introduced as O’Ma.
She greeted us warmly and we stepped inside.
Standing in the gloomy shack we were surrounded by nine littlies including two babies, toddlers and older kids. I spotted runny noses, ill-fitting and dirty clothes and swollen bellies – a sure sign of malnourishment.
Yet, in the midst of this despair, I experienced Ubuntu.
O’Ma shares her vision
O’Ma told me an unforgettable story, translated from broken Afrikaans as her first language was Xhosa.
O’Ma, then in her sixties, had created a playgroup to look after Khayelitsha babies and children of all ages. It was her way of helping them get a better future.
But it was a playgroup with a twist.
This one existed without toys, story time, food, milk or blankets. Ditto for running water, electricity and furniture.
The toddlers and kids walked to playgroup by themselves and, if O’Ma was able, at times she’d walk to pick up the babies. She had her regulars but often ‘new’ kids showed up.
O’Ma said it was popular every Monday, the day of our visit, when many mothers were too drunk to look after their children.
Inspecting the latrine
Her proudest achievement, she said, was the latrine her husband had built for the kids. It was a couple of planks of wood supported by three wooden boxes with each one perched over a hole in the ground.
In the absence of proper sanitation, the stench was unbearable and pretty soon vomit rose to the back of my mouth.
After the latrine inspection, we stepped back inside the shanty.
A few of the older kids playfully yanked the plastic bag from my hand and some of its contents spilled onto the mud floor. From their voices, I could tell they had never seen so many lollies.
I’m sure some had never even tasted candy.
I am because we are
In that moment the elephant in the shanty reappeared. The extreme inequality between me, the kids and O’Ma was profound.
I’ll never forget the gift of Ubuntu that O’Ma shared with her charges and me:
- to provide hope in adversity;
- to show genuine kindness to all and even in knowing that it may never be acknowledged or repaid; and
- to help others not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because we are all inextricably bound.
Khayelitsha in 2013
Although my visit to Khayelitsha was nearly 20 years ago, according to numerous accounts, life for black South Africans today hasn’t changed much since apartheid.
Millions still live in slums or shanties. And, Khayelitsha remains one of Cape Town’s largest townships with around one million dwellers.
Granted, many areas in Khayelitsha now have sanitation, electricity, health facilities and schools. Yet, life there and in other townships is harsh, desperate and violent for millions, just as it was during apartheid. (Photo credit: CBC News)
- How will you show Ubuntu this festive season?